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Published:March 18th, 2009 12:28 EST
Cult Camp Classics 4-Sword and Sandel Spectacle Films of Yesteryear!

Cult Camp Classics 4-Sword and Sandel Spectacle Films of Yesteryear!

By John G. Kays

CULT CAMP CLASSICS 4-HISTORICAL EPICS

 

The Colossus of Rhodes

SWORD AND SANDEL, SPECTATOR, AND/OR EPIC GENRE MEDLEY PACK

Land Of The Pharaohs

 

This Warner Brothers` three-pack is welcome and really packs a wallop! A trifle technical here, but I do not consider this to be a box set, since there are only three films. The three-pack is laced with the DNA of what I am calling the marginal spectator genre. Legitimate spectator films would be Cecil B. DeMille`s The Ten Commandments or Stanley Kubricks` Spartacus. These are the best models for Historical Epics.

The Prodigal

 

The flicks in this Warner Brother`s set are almost Drive-In fare, but slightly more legitimate. I have never seen any of these films before, and while they are not total flops, they are obscure enough to warrant another gander. The only review I could find was this one on Volume 2, which has a film that I am anxious to see; The Big Cube, about a prank by demented hippies to cause unsuspecting victims to eat acid sugar cubes, then watch the results. This entire picture is dedicated to the mission of showing the downside of psychotropic drugs (8/03/2007-I have since purchased The Women in Peril three-pack and love it). I digress here, back to volume 4.

 

All three films have copious commentary by trained, canny film historians replete with observations, facts, or indeed oodles of trivia that are helpful, but deplete the sizzle in the steak somewhat. The Colossus Of Rhodes is a sword and sandal affair, an upper-crust machiste film, directed by Sergio Leone, and provides clues to his future voice. Land Of The Pharaohs is an epic film directed by Howard Hawks, is wonderful to watch, but is something of an anomaly for his otherwise spectacular career. The Prodigal, directed by Richard Thorpe and starring one dolled up Lana Turner, sheds light on the age-old dichotomy of flesh verses the soul. I am very curious now to view other films like The Last Days of Pompeii (1960) or Quo Vadis or some of the Steve Reeves` Hercules stuff, ya know. 

 

THE PRODIGAL

 

This 1955 production was directed by Richard Thorpe and stars Lana Turner, Edmund Purdom, and Louis Calhern. It uses Cinema Scope and is photographed in Eastman Color; this ancient technology are unusual to our eyes today. Lana Turner plays the pagan priestess Astarte who holds the people of Damascus in check through her charms, and for the benefit of the greedy leaders.

 

My favorite actor in The Prodigal was Louis Calhern who plays the villainous pagan high priest with panache; he manages to dodge much of the dodgy quirks of this production with his brilliant acting. His goal is to keep the people down and under the spell of Baal and Astarte. He wears a jewel be-dappled circus shrine hat that is Fort Knox for a Halloween Hoot-nanny! The grossed-out money lender wears some garish outfits too.

 

An audio commentary is provided by Dr. Drew Casper and he provides excruciating bits and pieces about the microspecs of the picture. This seems to be a popular trend amongst the companies providing these DVD releases of these old films. I suppose that more people want to know about cinematic history-I know that I do!

 

One good point you can make is that the sets look marvelous. The art director was Cedric Gibbons who won many academy awards for his sets such as Julius Caesar or the Gaslight. Just look at the shots of Damascus, the slave market scene with the graffiti, or the ceremonial scene with the god Baal and the human sacrifice after Lana gives him a farewell kiss on the forehead. Another plus was the charnal-bones-gravel-pit fanfare with the leviathan vultures trying to slurp down Edmund Purdon for lunch! Again, this stands out like sore thumb because of the sets by Cedric Gibbons. Drew Casper points out too that Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration for The Birds from this scene. Yes, you can really see the veracity of that fact when you look at this sequence!

 

No matter how long I watched The Prodigal, it would just not end. It went on and on forever, and had I seen it in the theater, I well may have dosed off and sawed logs of slumber! Just like the film itself, the commentary of Dr. Drew Casper was over-laden with incidental facts about the film industry; a bit of pruning and prudence would have been a more fitting welcome-wagon! Indeed, the film specialist took the scenic route on the flick-freeway, and his banter was a parrot`s cacophonous chatter.  Drew tried to squeeze in too much cultural baggage; if I wanted to take that road, I would just dust off my copy of Hollywood Babylon.

 

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS

 

This film was also released in 1955 and was directed by the famous Howard Hawks. It is a spectacle picture in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, and uses more than 10,000 extras to create its sweeping effect, and this is done nicely in the Cinemascope format. Apparently it was a big flop, but projects itself as lost treasure today; anything Howard Hawks touches seems to be laden with a cinematic mother lode, for the most part.

 

The story, partially written by William Faulkner, recalls the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, for the Pharoah Khufu, and deals specifically with the puzzle of how that was accomplished. William Faulkner and Howard Hawks had a strong working relationship, and produced some of the greatest films of all time like To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep, but Land Of The Pharaohs gave them a little more trouble. 

 

There were plenty aspects to the film that really were keen. The first aspect is the way Hawks tries to solve the mystery of how the pyramids were built. How did the slaves get the heavy stones to the site? The main question that he tries to answer, is how could the tomb of the pharaoh be built securely so as to prevent thieves from purloining its treasures? This engineering feat is very cleverly portrayed! The other warm and fuzzy characteristic is the personage of the second queen played by Joan Collins. She is conniving, sultry, and downright evil, even at the age of twenty two, as she thirsts for power and riches, a favorite thing for many people back then and even now, especially Joan. Nellifer (Joan): It feels almost soft as if it`s something to be caressed, only gold feels that way! "

 

Another preferred loop was when the traitors to the pharaoh were tossed off the cliff to the alligator pit. Too, there are many shots of the Pharaoh`s massive personal stash that is to be buried with him in his pyramid grave after his departure-this was dazzling to say the least. It is easy to see why the greedy Nellifer (Joan Collins) was eager to purloin it! You are going to have to see the humongous necklace that appears in several scenes; Nellifer`s lust for the gem seems to drive her to the dark side! And just listen to the majestic score of Dimitri Tiompkin, with many shorter, staccato phrases that accent the importance of the building of the pyramid and the worship of the pharaoh. His music often fills the cracks in weaker scenes. The loop where the people demonstrated their homage to the heroic dead, the oracles are spoken through the stone head idols of the Egyptian Gods who utter the consecrations through the hard throats of  Big Heads mysteriously ! 

 

Jack Hawkins was credible as the Pharaoh Khufu who spends much of his time fondling his gold, his queens, and making proper preparations for the afterlife. One could not help but notice that he seemed more like Monty than Tut, more English than Egyptian! Peter Bogdanovich does a right good job on the commentary, as he is a Howard Hawks expert!

 

THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES

 

This 1961 film, an Italian-French-Spanish co-production, is directed by Sergio Leone only a few years before he broke out with A FistFul of Dollars. It was shot in Northern Spain, uses many grottos for sets, and centers around one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the gigantic statue that stood prominently in the harbor of Rhodes for sixty years, starting in 260 BC. The picture follows the medieval myth that the Colossus bestrides the harbor, but it really was atop a hill in the city of Rhodes. The actual statue was 105 feet tall, but in the movie it is three times as big. Also, the real time span of its existence is 60 years, while in this film it is created and destroyed within one year`s time. Colossus was a bronze statue of Helios with rays of the sun projecting out of the head, according to Christopher Frayling the film historian.   Films in the Herculean ilk, played by Steve Reeves, were very popular in Europe in the late fifties, and this one continues with this trend, but focuses on a period of antiquity little dwelled on, the time after the death of Alexander The Great, (I actually sew that mosaic of Alexander fighting the Persian king Darius III when I visited Naples in 2000) the Hellenistic Age. It is in a widescreen format as well, but is called Supertotalscope, the Italian take on Cinema Scope.  

 

Rory Calhoun, an American actor and a veteran of western B-movies, plays a Spartacus- like character and a sort of proletarian Cary Grant according to Christopher Frayling. Rory plays Dario, a Greek who is on holiday on the island, but is drawn into a web of conspiracy and civil war. He does not shine brightly, but Rory manages an efficient performance. Lea Massari plays the femme fatalé, a possible lover for Rory Calhoun; she had appeared in L`Avventura with Monica Vitti, and is a bit over-pleasant in The Colossus of Rhodes " as the schemer of political power in the decadent Rhodean court. Roberto Camardiel, a star in the spaghetti western Django Kill, plays the tyrant of Rhodes, Serse, who makes an alliance with Phoenicia to plunder the Greeks by way of piracy along the coast. He wears a red beard and elaborate garb and conducts lavish symposiums with the obligatory slaves, court girls, and food spreads galore.

 

A useful commentary is provided by Christopher Frayling, a film historian, and provides much trivia that rounds out your knowledge about Sergio Leone, Italian cinema, and the multi-layered network of actors, set-designers, music score composers, and screenplay writers; he connects the dots with lots of other flicks. When you have that precise of command of the facts it makes it a delight to see these old films, not too analytical, mind you!

 

Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is the composer of the soundtrack; one can only speculate that he would have been the great partner to Leone had he not ran into Ennio Moricone. Ramiro Gomez does the production for the set design. Both had worked on The Last Days of Pompeii, the 1960 version with Steve Reeves. And Vittorio Rossi did a really good job with the costume designs.

 

SUM UP

 

The Colossus of Rhodes was my favorite of the lot; lots of western-like action, a serpentine plot of political conspiracy, and gorgeous shots of the Mediterranean coast were the vital factors in the choice. Also, the commentator for that film, Christopher Frayling, was my favorite. He cues his comments off the action, and has a graceful English bravado that compliments the gumptios gusto of Sergio Leone.

 

Christopher is tight on sword and sandal genre and the gladiator thing, and is comfortable and comprehensive, but not overbearing. I felt like I was in Rhodes in 280 BC and I love the statue too, maybe even more than Lady Liberty; no doubt I would worship the Colossus. Lea Massari is an unlikely femme fatalé, but this is subtle and sits well with me. Rory Calhoun is smooth and cowboy-like and perfect for the pro-freedom fighter Dario. There was a nice burning oil on the freedom-fighters scene too! Another thing is the fake-lip-synching where the characters seem to be throwing their voices like ventriloquists.

 

The sound guys may have being playing some mixing-games in post production editing. This continued on the classics of Leone and gives it a comic effect like you are watching a cheap foreign film. My least favorite was The Prodigal for its lumbering progressions, but Louis Calhern almost salvaged it with his golden circus shrine caps. And odd thing is that Stoller and Leiber song Idol with A Golden Head " kept popping up in my head! The song was a success and the film was a flop though. I did like Land Of the Pharaohs however, but the dialogue was uncomfortable, in spite of being penned by Bill Faulkner. The sets and costumes made up for it though, and Joan Collins plays a perfect bad girl. Overall, I highly recommend this three-pack!

 

CLAUDE BOVEÉ`S FUN FACTORY OF FILM CRITICISM